LION member spotlight: VOICES: River City

By Matt DeRienzo | Feb. 11, 2018

Dave Kempa

A Q&A with LION member Dave Kempa, publisher of local independent online news site VOICES: River City in Sacramento.

1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?

VOICES: River City launched April 26, 2017. We do news, arts and commentary in the Sacramento, California, region. Our content and tone land somewhere between the traditional alternative weekly and Gawkeresque, web-friendly sass.

I’d been thinking about launching V:RC for a couple of years due, in part, to the region’s flagging media landscape. I wasn’t seeing any web-friendly outlets out there giving local folks a chance to speak truth to power. Given that we’re the capital of left-leaning California, that felt like a damn shame.

2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?

I’ve been working in media for almost a decade. I got my master’s in journalism from ASU’s Cronkite School. I was part of their new downtown Phoenix location’s first graduate class. The guinea pigs. The professors still talk about how much of a pain we were.

After grad school, I spent three years in New York. My first job was at Thomson Reuters. I quit and soon after joined Occupy Wall Street. You can actually find an old essay of mine in the first Occupied Wall Street Journal.

Post-OWS I was somewhat unmoored, so I called up Rick Rodriguez, my old professor from grad school. He’s the former editor of the Sacramento Bee, so he’s got contacts in Sac. We discussed a grant-funded opening for a poverty reporter with the alt weekly Sacramento News & Review, and before I knew it I was making my way out west.

I worked as a staff writer there for about a year before grant funding ran out. After that I had a spell on the “dark side” as director of communications for a mid-sized winery, and then spent a very rewarding couple of years as a freelance reporter and journalism professor before eventually launching VOICES.

3. How would you describe your operation and business model?

The operation is bare bones. No brick and mortar yet, though we hold the occasional meet-the-v:rc-folks hangout to build rapport with readers and contributors.

I’ve got a team of amazing editors and writers who believe in what V:RC is about and are keeping things going while I’m abroad for a couple of months. We’ve worked hard to build social capital in the Sacramento community—enough so that neighbors, activists and experts are approaching us to run their writing.

We publish somewhere between two and six pieces in a given week, ranging from hard-hitting news to theater reviews, black oral history, political commentary, quirky Q&As, a podcast, a monthly sex/love column and humor pieces.

So far, we haven’t focused on the business model. I’ve spent the last year researching biz-mod strategy to exhaustion, but haven’t yet pulled the trigger on it. We wanted assure the community of our dedication to the public interest before posting up advertisements or anything like that. We currently have a good-faith Patreon that gives us about $200 each month for symbolic payments to writers.

As VOICES: enters its second year of existence, funding will take a much more central role. I want to be able to pay my writers what they’re worth.

4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?

I think in a roundabout way we’re filling a niche that’s been abandoned.

As McClatchy circles the drain, we’ve seen a lot of painful cuts to the Sacramento Bee staff. And while the Bee is obviously not our competitor (we don’t employ a daily paper’s style/tone), the region has seen the alt weekly SN&R working to start appealing to a “broader” audience. Basically, they’re moving in on the Bee, which has left a bit of a need for news/commentary/arts on the left. That’s where VOICES comes in.

Ultimately, the Sacramento news scene is hurting so much that we’re all rooting for each other (a weird phenomenon, as the region is otherwise going through a bit of a renaissance). We actually have a monthly hangout for local journalists called No Flacks Allowed, where we all meet, drink and discuss the industry. A bunch of SN&R folks started it when we noticed the Sacramento Press Club was something like 70 percent PR reps and lobbyists. We decided we should create something that actually looked like a press club.

5. What makes your site unique?

I think we take chances that a lot of folks in today’s media—an ecosystem defined by scarcity—are afraid to take. One of my writers, who goes by the nom de plume Sac Snark, is astounding in his ability to anger business leaders and politicos in power. Same goes for our reporters who speak up on things that seem to go unquestioned by the media until we look at them (see Blake Gillespie’s reporting on the Wide Open Walls mural festival).

The V:RC motto is “Independent. Weird. Unflinching.” We’ve worked really hard to remain unafraid to speak up when it needs doing, or to hand our platform over to folks willing to do the same.

6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?

Beware of burnout, and trust your community to help carry the torch. I sort of drove myself into the ground by the end of six months, and I’m still recovering from it. Thankfully, my friends/writers/editors who were there from the beginning picked up the slack while I took a step back to take care of myself. I think earlier on I should have tapped the community resource more often.

That, and I likely should have started pursuing funding earlier.

7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?

The heart. We’ve got a really impressive, diverse pool of writers and editors that believe in this thing and are willing to do what needs to be done to make it grow. I can’t wait to see where this all leads.

8. What do you struggle with the most?

Funding. As I mentioned, I’ve spent a long time researching the business models for local, independent, online publishers. I just need to execute now.

Two things that would really help are: 1. A bit of seed money to buffer V:RC so I could dedicate myself fully to building out the biz-mod, and 2. A mentor who has been down this path before and can help me learn the ropes with funding.

9. What are some of your future goals for the site?

Self-sufficiency. Ramped up publishing. Pay writers, photographers, graphic artists what they’re worth. Serve community needs and fill gaps in local media (for instance, when the Bee gutted its arts coverage, we amped up live theater reporting).

I think the only outlet growing and actively hiring in our region is Capital Public Radio. I want VOICES: to be doing that within a year.

10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?

What everyone here is doing… this is the future of our industry. I’m so happy to have found community in the LION family.